Hockey writers vs. Islanders, NHL: Why awards vote boycott matters

Last November, the New York Islanders pulled the credential of a sportswriter covering their team for unspecified reasons, offering a nebulous "he went from reporting the news to making the news" as justification to the public.

Only Chris Botta wasn't just a sportswriter for AOL Sports and his own Islanders blog. He was a former vice president of media relations for the Islanders for two decades. The Islanders sponsored his blog, Point Blank, when it began, before pulling that sponsorship in 2009. What he says, and what he writes, carries with it an extra weight because of his tenure with the organization. The Islanders and GM Garth Snow recognized this better than anyone in cutting off his access.

The tangled bonds between the Islanders and Botta are the reason why the NHL, despite being called upon to mediate by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, did not ultimately demand Botta's credential be reinstated by Snow.

That decision by the NHL, and the continued restriction of Botta's access by the Islanders, is the reason why dozens of PHWA members are boycotting the 2011 NHL Awards voting this season in protest.

Is this a battle worth fighting, and what does it mean for fans?

The Professional Hockey Writers Association votes each season on the Hart, Norris, Calder, Lady Byng and Selke trophies, along with the NHL postseason all-star teams. The PHWA is a collection of national and local writers covering the NHL. Each team has its own chapter; I'm a member of the D.C. chapter, Botta was a member of the New York Rangers chapter.

The Rangers writers began the protest, voting 7-3 to boycott the awards. The Islanders and Devils followed suit, which led to an emergency conference call this weekend by the PHWA in order to assess what the rest of its body wanted to do.

(Keep in mind this issue was discussed at a members meeting during the All-Star Game, during which the notion of a boycott was dismissed by the majority.)

On Friday, the Islanders responded to their action with statement critical of the boycott:

This unprecedented action taken by the New York chapter members of the PHWA, is not hurting the Islanders organization or changing our stance on the past matter.  Instead it is directly affecting the various players that rely on these votes to earn nominations.

Players such as Michael Grabner, who is considered as one of the frontrunners for the Rookie of the Year award, or Frans Nielsen  who is considered a possible nominee for the Selke Trophy, will not receive votes from New York media members who watch these players every game.

Grabner will never have a 30-plus-goal rookie season again.  In the case of Nielsen, his seven shorthanded goals this year are the most since Philadelphia Flyers forward Mike Richards, who also scored seven tallies in 2008-09, when he was nominated for the Selke Trophy.

It is unfair to punish the players that had no direct impact on the decision made by the Islanders organization.  The Islanders request that the New York members of the PHWA change their position and vote for those NHL players who deserve consideration for an NHL award.  By doing so, the New York members of the PHWA will recognize the players that rightfully deserve the chance to have their name considered among the league's elite.

Now, whether this was playing a public sympathy card or not, the Islanders embarrassed themselves and their press corps with this statement, which positions the New York writers as shills for the teams they cover.

The assumption of automatic pom-pom waving for Grabner and Nielsen speaks volumes about how cuckolded Garth Snow wants to keep the media. How ironic that they cut off access for a former PR man while assuming the rest of press row is an extension of their marketing department ...

Botta's statement on the matter is here.

The PHWA released a statement today, clarifying the issues and the boycott. It's a long one, so hang in there:

"As the NHL's 2010-11 regular season winds down, and with voting on the league's awards imminent, the Professional Hockey Writers Association remains adamantly opposed to — and distressed by — the early season decision of the New York Islanders to revoke the media credential of a PHWA member.

"This is even more objectionable than the original decision itself: In the months since, league officials have refused to intervene and overrule the Islanders' decision, which would serve to re-emphasize the NHL's commitment to facilitate objective and authoritative coverage from PHWA members.

"The media marketplace is changing daily, and newspapers and other outlets for written journalism are among those adapting. To its credit, the NHL and its teams have aggressively taken on the challenge of creating and enhancing their 'own' coverage on several platforms, going beyond the more traditional 'in-house' broadcasts to now include team web sites and other outlets.

"Yet the league's savvy fan base understands the need for, and desires, independent and objective coverage that doesn't pass through league and team filters.

"Our concern is that this decision, if allowed to stand and become precedent, signals an end to the league's agreement that independent and objective coverage not only benefits its fan base, but the NHL itself.

"The PHWA's position is absolute. The splitting of hairs about the circumstances of the Islanders' decision is an irrelevant waste of time. We ask that the NHL disavow the Islanders' capricious decision in this specific instance, but even more important, reaffirm that — barring egregious actions that would cause the PHWA to expel a member, anyway -- PHWA members will be granted access to cover its teams.

"Meanwhile, three of our chapters — those made up of writers who cover the Islanders, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils — have decided not to participate in the PHWA voting for the NHL's 2010-11 regular-season awards. That voting selects the winners of most of the league's major trophies and its first- and second-team all-stars.

"The PHWA takes seriously its role as an authoritative, objective and independent voting body for these awards, and is honored to participate in the process. It also respects and will support the decisions of individual members not to return their ballots, which the league already has distributed to PHWA members. However, the PHWA also believes that because the voting process has begun, both the writers' organization and the league have entered into a mutual and honorable pact to see through the voting process for the 2010-11 awards.

"The PHWA is confident that with potentially nearly 90 percent of its 177 members continuing to participate, the pool of voters -- which has grown significantly in recent years — is more than sufficient to maintain the integrity of the voting.

"In the upcoming offseason, the PHWA hopes to again meet with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and other league officials to seek clarification of the credentialing issue and to discuss the future of the PHWA's role as an independent and objective voting bloc in continuing to bolster the credibility of the league's awards."

Well, that's a lot of digital ink right there.

At its core, the statement brings three ideas to the forefront:

1. That despite the boycott from some writers -- and there are scribes outside of New York joining the embargo too -- the voting process for the NHL Awards is uncorrupted this season.

2. That PHWA members are granted access to cover teams unless their behavior is so egregious, or there is such a massive ethical lapse, that his or her PHWA membership would likely be terminated along with their credential being pulled.

This simply isn't the case with Botta, whose primary sins appear to be his tone in coverage and the fact that his readers respect his opinion.

Say, for example, Botta wrote a piece urging an Islanders player to leave the franchise rather than re-sign. Is it up to the player to buy his argument? Yes. Is it up to the Islanders to make a reasoned counter-argument? Yes.

Does that opinion, weighty as it is, warrant the writer's credential getting cancelled? Of course not.

The Islanders were wrong to cancel Botta's credential because that's the nuclear option. The rational and professional option was to simply not speak to him, from the front office on down, if his coverage was that slanted and undermining. That's what adults do, instead of changing the locks.

Instead, they opted for the ultimate Snow job.

3. Finally, the statement reiterated that the independent hockey media's future with the NHL is uncertain.

Will the PHWA still vote on awards down the line, or would the NHL take that in-house? What's the role of the hockey press when the NHL has its own print, audio and visual media machine in place, pumping out game coverage and features on a daily basis?

When the League is allowing an NHL team to restrict access to an PHWA member, on top of its complicity in restricting access to bloggers on press row, what other restrictions are in the offering for those are aren't in the employ of the League or its rights-holders?

I don't plan on joining the boycott, although I respect those who have. Maybe things would be different if I were part of the New York press corps.

(Ed. Note: I've answered this a couple of times in the comments already, so I'll add it here: I'm not joining the boycott because the PHWA decided at its meeting in Raleigh not to do so. As Kevin Allen, head of the PHWA said: "The idea of a national boycott was discussed briefly, but my sense was that the majority of our members opposed the disruption of the voting process. But no motion was ever made to boycott. In talking to members, it's clear to me that they consider the voting process to be highly important."

I agree with that stance, but would obviously be on board if the majority of the voters were. It didn't occur to me to add a justification originally, so there you go.)

But I do think this is a vital story, albeit one about a very unique writer/team relationship. An example, as someone who voted not to join the boycott mentioned to me: Botta used to be in a position to deny credentials to writers for arbitrary reasons. So this writer didn't sympathize with his plight.

It's the principle of the thing. Of the NHL standing up for a member of the professional organization covering the League. Of maintaining an independent media in today's culture.

It's important enough that voters are burning their ballots at a time when the NHL could take away the privilege and easily make the awards voting as perfunctory and clandestine as the weekly Three Stars. You have to respect that.

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